Monday, January 26, 2015

Vertigo (1958)

James Stewart (who also starred in Rear Window) returns as a police detective who feels compelled to retire after discovering (in a spectacular twilight chase scene over the rooftops of San Francisco that opens the movie) that he suffers from an acute fear of heights. He is goaded into taking one last assignment, however, to tail an old friend's wife (a haunting, haunted Kim Novak), whose husband believes she has been possessed by the ghost of an old ancestor.

Alfred Hitchcock employs his usual creativity as a filmmaker (limited though the technical effects of the time may have been) to bring to life the theme of acrophobia (fear of heights). But though the movie does involve the main character's battle to overcome his fear of heights, it is less the harrowing gauntlet of acrophobic challenges that it could have been, and more a personal study of one man's romantic obsession with a woman, and what it does to him. In that sense, the fear of falling may be related to falling in love, but as this is a Hitchcock film, it's no budding romance, but a neurotic, spiraling plunge into the depths of madness.

The apparent climax to the film seems to come not 3/4 of the way through the movie, followed by a shocking twist that changes the direction of the movie (a technique Hitchcock would perfect in Psycho). Some viewers have criticized the too early placement of a scene that resolves the movie's mystery, but this actually reveals Hitchcock's intention not to tell a conventional murder mystery (instead favoring suspense over surprise), but to focus on the heady effects of obsessive romance on the film's two leads. The denouement following this revelation, however, tends to make the movie feel a bit overlong (with a run time that exceeds the two hour mark), and, like Rear Window, ultimately reaches a conclusion that is startlingly abrupt (if applaudingly stylistic).

Hitchcock's grasp of suspense, characterization, and dialogue is masterful as ever, but he is not without flaw. Vertigo is not an immediately accessible movie, and does not feel altogether satisfying when viewed straight (which probably accounts for its initial panning), although its retroactive reputation as Hitchcock's greatest masterpiece is a testament to the film's intimate personality and ability to inspire obsession in viewers not unlike that the protagonist in the story feels (no less than Martin Scorsese expresses admiration for the film in one of the DVD's bonus features). My own opinion is that this is probably not Hitchcock's best film, and definitely not the greatest movie ever made (not by a long shot), but it demonstrates a talented director's creative attempt at flouting the rules of genre convention, and for that, it earns my respect.

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